Have you ever been trapped in a room with no hope of getting out?  How would you feel if that ever happened to you?  Please don’t tell me, “I understand how that feels” if you really haven’t experienced it.

When someone loses a loved one or suffers a terrible tragedy, I too often hear people say, “I understand your loss” or “I feel your pain.”  No, you don’t understand my situation, nor do you feel my pain; you’re saying this to make me feel better, but you have no idea how I really feel.  Until it happens to you, there’s simply no way for you to truly understand or feel the same pain I feel.  So please, spare me your sympathy and keep it with you—it would absolutely be phony for you to say those things.

Here I wish to share my experience with you, albeit it happened a long time ago.  Why share this now?  What do I remember about the experience, since it happened so long ago?  Every memory requires a trigger to retrieve information from the memory bank—the subconscious strata of our mind.  For that I have to take you down memory lane.

It’s true that not all experiences stored in our memory are vivid—those that are traumatic tend to stay fresh longer.  This one happened during the Dasain celebration of 2016, when our daughters, their husbands, and their children had gathered in our home for tika.  While the adults were busy doing various things, the kids were playing in different rooms in the house.  At some point, they decided to play hide and seek.

As typically happens after kids play the same game for a while, they get bored and must become inventive and more daring, finding new and unpredictable places where they can’t be found as easily.  Sanjan, our youngest grandson, six at the time, decided to hide in my library room, located in a separate house in the backyard.  He quietly asked my permission to hide in there, and I opened the locked door and let him in—very clandestinely, of course.  He slammed the door on entering, the consequence of which will be revealed later in the story.

Here comes the fun—and also terrifying—part of the story.  After scouting every room and carefully turning up every possible thing that resembled Sanjan, Rohin, Jaya, and Suma couldn’t find him.  Five minutes passed, then ten, but still there was no sign of Sanjan.  They eventually gave up.

I suddenly heard a scream coming from the library.  But it didn’t sound like a scream of triumph; it was a scream of panic.  Only can a parent distinguish between a scream of joy and a scream of panic.  I opened the door and there he was, crying, totally terrified to the point of shaking.  I couldn’t understand why he was so upset.  When I asked him the reason, he told me, “The door was jammed and I couldn’t open it.”  That was the trigger that took me back to the exact place, time, and event some 63 years ago.  A similar thing happened to me.

I’d gone with my parents to visit my oldest brother in Trisuli.  My brother was a postmaster who was posted in the Trisuli Post Office.  The government gave him living quarters right next to the post office, overlooking Trisuli River.  It had a beautiful view of the river, accompanied by the roaring sound of the running water down below.

Foundation for the new motorable bridge connecting Aabukhaireni of Tanahun and Muglin of Chitwan, laid near an old bridge along the Prithvi Highway. Photo: Madan Wagle

I distinctly remember that it was summer and a little warm, but the cool breeze from the river was soothing.  I had two nephews and two nieces around my age, and it was the perfect time and environment to play and have fun.  I was about nine at the time, and, being slightly older and the other kids’ uncle, I was the leader of the pack.

It was evening; the sun was just about to set.  In addition to the gang of four nephews and nieces, there were two locals—a boy and a girl who pretended to know more than we cared to know about the local gossips and legends.

One of the most memorable tales I remember hearing from the local kids was that a certain mother and child had drowned in the river, the result of an unfortunate accident.  Even today, according to Sarita, the cry of the baby can be heard on the banks of the river when it gets dark.  She even volunteered to take us to the spot where they died to prove that she was not fifing.

The other tale involved an old haunted residence. Six houses down the road from my brother’s quarters stood an abandoned house with broken windows and the door ajar.  Sarita said there once lived an old couple that died in the house under mysterious circumstances.  Because they didn’t have relatives, no one knew what happened to them until the locals smelled decaying corpses inside the house.  As the story goes, their spirits now haunt it.  Of course, no one dares to buy the property for fear of the ghosts.

Broken window-2

That fateful evening we decided to play a game of hide and seek.  It was my turn to hide, and, trying to outsmart everyone, I chose to hide in the so-called haunted house.  I hadn’t remembered the ghostly tale that Sarita narrated to us a year earlier.  Excited that no one would think to look for me there, I entered the abandoned house through the half-open door, closing it behind me to ensure that no one could see.

The room inside the door was empty and dusty, with cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and a strange smell.  I chose a spot that I thought was ideal to hide and waited in anticipation for my gang to eventually find me.  But after waiting for about ten minutes, no one had come.  I felt a sense of victory and I needed to come out to celebrate my victory.  It was a game, after all, and in a game one wins and the other loses.  I clearly won and my gang lost.

Ready to celebrate victory I tried to open the door—but there was no doorknob.  Damn!  Putting my fingers into the knob hole I applied all my force, but the door was jammed.  I could not budge it.  This time I was really screwed.

It was getting dark when I suddenly remembered the tales of horror that Sarita had told us a year ago.  The terror manifested itself in many forms.  First, I imagined the couple coming to life from the dead.  I imagined hearing noises and felt something touching me from behind.  I felt cold and stiff, my hair stood up on my back.

Looking back as a rational person, I now know that it was all in my head.  There was no one in the room, and the dead don’t come back to life as we see in Hollywood movies.  But at that point in time, my fears felt real.  I panicked and yelled for help.  I called my nephews and nieces by their names:  “Ishwori, Bhubanishori, Mohan, Govinda!  I am here!  Open the door!”

No one came because no one heard my cries for help.  Luckily, there was a broken window, but it proved too high to climb.  Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.  I saw a pile of bricks in a corner.  Hauling them as fast as I could, I stepped on the pile, jumped out the window, and ran for the border.

Now I can say with confidence that what my grandson Sanjan felt that day, when he found himself locked in the library, was a feeling of terror.  One doesn’t have to go to a deep, dark forest to feel that way; one can be right in the comfort of their home and still feel fear and terror due to the circumstances.  Although the two scenarios I described were different, it is a defeating feeling to be trapped in a room and unable to control or change the situation.

Because I understood Sanjan’s feeling, I comforted him by giving him a bear hug.  I encouraged him to declare that he won the game because no one could find him.  For me, I got to relive the experience one more time—not in terror but in laughter.